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Julian Power

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How-To

How (not) to film a low-budget documentary (case study)

el poblado skyline

Last year I lived for four months in Medellín and I decided to film a documentary while staying there. I wanted to learn filmmaking while capitalizing on the popularity of Medellín. The only problem was that I didn’t know a thing about filmmaking, but I didn’t let that stop me. When you shot a documentary, you have to make decisions in terms of technique and style constantly. In this article, I am going to explain my decisions and how I would do things differently now.

Budget

A professional documentary costs typically at least $100.000 and that is low-budget. My documentary was a one-man show and my initial budget was $1000, one percent of a normal budget. I paid $1005 for the equipment and $226 for the post-production, which means that I overran my budget by $231 (≈25%).

If you want to understand the production process behind a professional documentary I recommend watching the series Making Minimalism. Filmmaker Matt D’Avella explains in the series how he filmed the documentary Minimalism. He also talks about the financials of the documentary.

Concept

The concept was weak at best and nonexistent at worst. I started with the idea to film my experiences in Medellín and to add interviews with entrepreneurs about Medellín. I realized soon that it doesn’t make sense to combine both storylines and I split the documentary into two film projects: One about Medellín as a creative city and one about my life in Medellín. I focused on the documentary about Medellín and the personal one was more of an afterthought.

The documentary lacks a strong narrative, which connects the interviews. The central theme is the living quality of Medellín and the relationship of the interviewees with the city, but there is no overlying storyline. It’s a bit dry to watch 80 minutes of interviews and therefore I released the interviews by themselves as well.

Maybe a podcast episode would have been a better format for several long-form interviews. The audio quality would have been much higher and it would have been easier for me to connect the interviews into a storyline. The production would have been easier and cheaper as well. I feel that I was able to film eight interesting interviews, but I wasn’t able to shoot a well-rounded documentary. I am going to invest more time in the pre-production next time.

Interviews

The documentary consists of eight interviews and my main focus was to find interesting people to interview. This is the only part of the documentary where I feel that I succeed. All interviewees were interesting and everyone had a unique perspective. Next time I am going to focus on a more balanced composition of interviewees (6 men and 2 women; 5 internationals and 3 Colombians).

Convincing people to take part in the documentary was easier than expected. I knew six of the interviewees and I reached out to the other two per e-mail. They didn’t know me at the time, but they knew people I had interviewed. The community of international entrepreneurs in Medellín is well connected.

Costs

Here is a breakdown of the production costs:

Equipment:
Sony FDRAX53/B 4K HD $850
Sony-ECMGZ1M-Zoom-Microphone $68
Transcend 128 GB Flash Memory Card $44
Rollei-Compact-Traveler-Star-DIGI $23
Sony LCSU21 Soft Carrying Case $20
Equipment cost $1005

Post production:
Stock Videos $98
Sound engineer $85
Adobe Premiere Pro (2 months) $42
Music $1
Post-production cost $226

Total cost $1231

camera-lens-close-up-electronics
Gear

Sony FDRAX53/B 4K HD: The biggest advantage of this 4K camcorder is its small size and I was able to transport it my backpack. The camera is easy to use and the integrated image stabilization works well. Buying a bundle might be cheaper than buying everything separately.

Sony-ECMGZ1M-Zoom-Microphone: I bought an external mic because internal mics tend to be low-quality. The microphone isn’t suited for interviews because it’s a shotgun mic that picks up all the background noise. I am going to buy a lavalier microphone for my next project.

Sony LCSU21 Soft Carrying Case: A small case to transport the camera and accessories.

Rollei-Compact-Traveler-Star-DIGI: The biggest advantage of this tripod is its portability, but the portability comes at the expense of stability. The tripod works fine, but it takes a little longer to set up.

Learnings

Filming The Rise of Medellín as a Creative City taught me a technical understanding of the filmmaking process, but I also learned about organization and storytelling. I learned the following lessons during the production process.

Cutting

Almost all the footage I had shot ended up in the final documentary. Typically, only a fraction of the footage survives the post-production. My documentary runs 80 minutes, but 40 minutes probably would have been better. That way the storyline would have been tighter and there would be no fluff in the documentary. It’s hard to cut out footage, but next time I am going to be more rigorous.

Style

When you shoot a documentary, you have to make dozens of stylistic decisions. An important decision is how you shot the interviews. Do you include the interviewer (two-shot) or do you focus on the interviewee (one-shot)? The two-shot makes the interview look like a natural conversation and the one-shot looks more professional. I switched between both styles and shot six two-shots interviews and two one-shot interviews. It’s better to be consistent with your decisions and next time I am going to shoot only one-shot interviews.

Movement

Using a tripod is the easiest way to shoot steady video and I almost always used a tripod. I made only two exceptions when I walked around filming the b-roll and when I shot the interview with David Kadavy. The next time I am going to film every scene with a tripod to avoid shaky footage.

Jump Cuts

There are four main ways to hide jump cuts:

  1. The elegant solution is a two camera setup with two different shots. That way you can switch between the shots when you need to. Next time I am going to buy a second camera and go this route to avoid dealing with jump cuts at all.
  2. You can reframe the footage in post-production to make it seem like you have shot with two cameras. You need high-resolution footage for this reframe (4k footage for a 1080p video). You can do this reframe with Adobe Premiere Pro. I could have used reframes, but I didn’t want to spend more time editing and I decided to live with the jump cuts in the interviews.
  3. You can cut to b-roll to hide a jump cut. It’s crucial that the b-roll is relevant to what the person is saying. In the interview with Rob LaFond, I cut to a video of Café Revolución 2 when he talks about it. You can also use stock videos when you don’t have b-roll.
  4. You can use morph cut to hide small jump cuts. Adobe Premiere Pro has a morph cut feature, which morphs together two clips of the same person. I didn’t use the feature for time reasons.

audio-on-computer

Sound

Most people are willing to tolerate a low video quality when the content is great. People are less forgiving with bad audio because it makes watching a video difficult. Unfortunately, I had bought a shotgun microphone that captured all the background noise. A clip-on lavalier microphone is better suited for interviews because you can place it much closer to the interviewee and therefore the sound is better. The sound of some of the interviews was so bad that I had to hire a sound engineer to remove as much background noise as possible.

Post-production

I bought Adobe Premiere Pro and I had to learn how to use it on the fly. I watched tutorials on YouTube and searched in film forums whenever I encountered a problem. Before the next project, I am going to use the free Adobe tutorials to learn the Adobe Premiere Pro basics from the ground up. I am also going to pay for professional color correction and color grading next time.

Organization

Filming involves repeated tasks like recharging the batteries and packing all pieces of equipment before the shot. I forgot the tripod for one interview and had to improvise. The next time I am going to use a checklist for simple repetitive tasks to save time and mental energy.

Communication

I should have kept the people I have interviewed more in the loop about the progress of the project. I sent one email to thank them for being part of the documentary, another one to inform them about the delay of the release and a final one when the documentary was online. Next time I am going to be more proactive about the communication with everyone involved in the project.

Conclusion

I am still a big believer in learning by doing, but with hindsight, I should have started with shorter videos and worked my way up. Filmmaking is a complex skill set and it would have been smarter to start with short YouTube videos about specific topics. Most people prefer short content and it’s much easier to grow an audience that way as well.

My documentary has around 200 views so far, which is a bit disheartening. I also spread myself too thin and the filming came at the expense of my writing. It’s better to focus on one skill at a time. I was all over the place in 2018 and I am going all in on writing in 2019.

I am still happy that I have done the documentary despite limited success. I talked to eight inspiring people and I learned a lesson from every single one. The documentary didn’t meet my expectations, but the interviews itself turned out great. I also learned basic filmmaking skills and I am confident that my next documentary is going to be much better.

Now you know how (not) to film a low-budget documentary. The rest is up to you,

 
 
 

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DIY manual: Portable Standing Desk ($8)

male carpenter using digital tablet

A standing desk is “a desk conceived for writing or reading while standing up or while sitting on a high stool.” It’s one of those things, which you don’t know you need until you have used it. The benefits in health and productivity are massive and that’s why standing desks are standard in Silicon Valley. Most employers shy away from the associated extra costs, but as an entrepreneur, you owe to yourself to maximize productivity and health. It costs only $8 anyway.

Optimization

I like to optimize the areas of my life, where I spend the most time of my day. One of them is at work. I work all day every day. When I work, I want to have a comfortable environment so I can focus on the task at hand. That’s the reason why I am willing to pay a premium for a coworking membership, a standing desk and a top-notch laptop.    

Standing desk

The concept of standing desks is relatively new and not well-known in Europe. Europeans tend to be skeptical about new ideas and it often takes a considerable amount of time before US trends are adopted on the other side of the Atlantic. I am always on the lookout for good ideas though.

When I read an article about standing desks, I ordered one the same day at IKEA. I was never as excited about buying a table before. I bought the SKARSTA model, which costs $250 plus $60 for the standing support, money well spent. You can adjust the height, but I never change it and stand all the time. I can’t imagine what my life looked like without a standing desk. The human body is designed for hunting and not for sitting at a desk for hours on end.

Unfortunately, I can’t cite scientific studies about the benefits of using a standing desk, because the research isn’t conclusive yet. But the New York Times has published an interesting article on this topic. I can only point to improved posture and an increased energy level since I am using a standing desk as anecdotal evidence.

Portable standing desk

Now that I have drunk the Kool-Aid it’s hard for me to imagine working at a normal desk. It’s like using an old operating system. You can do it, but what’s the fucking point. It’s easy to set up a productive working environment when you have the luxury of a home office. That task becomes more challenging when you travel.

I am going to live in Medellín for four months and I can’t be bothered to buy a standing desk in Colombia for this short period. The solution is a portable standing desk, which I can take with me wherever I go. It’s somewhat of a niche market and therefore the offering of portable standing desks is limited and I found only two products which I seriously considered. One is made of wood and the other one is made of aluminum. Both of them are too big and heavy for my taste, but they could be the solution for frustrated employees, who want to upgrade their regular desk. I am looking for a simpler solution, which I can transport in my backpack.

When I realized that no good solution exists on the market, I decided to take matters into my own hands, Julian Power style. I went to the drawing board and came up with different concepts. I had five requirements as a starting point and went from there:

  1. Inexpensive production
  2. High stability
  3. Low weight
  4. Small size
  5. Eco-friendly  

The development of a portable standing desk became one of my side projects and I tinkered with different concepts and materials for a couple of months. A prolonged period of trial and error led to a eureka moment and the JP One was born.

Open design

I could have tried to monetize my invention, but I have been interested in the open design movement for years and therefore I decided to give my concept away for free. “Open design is the development of physical products, machines and systems through use of publicly shared design information.” I believe that if you give value to the world, the universe will find a way to reward you in one form or another. On a related note, check out the HomeMadeModern Youtube channel and the accompanying book, if you are interested in building modern furniture.

Manual

The main decision you have to make is if you want to cut the wood yourself or let someone else do it, depending on your tools and skills. I chose to commission an online manufacturer, who cut the wood of my choice and sent it by mail. I bought two multiplex boards and I paid $8 apiece (including the cut). I would have done it myself, but I needed to order multiplex boards anyway.

Material

The only material you need is a board as a basis and four regular bottle tops. I prefer wood over plastic, but that’s just me. I have chosen a waterproof multiplex board, which consists of several wood layers glued together crosswise. It’s economical, light, stable and easy to cut. You can also use plastic or other materials.  

Size

The size depends on your laptop model and your preferences. My MacBook Air has a width of 12.8 inches and a depth of 8.94 inches. I used the exact same measurements for my portable standing desk, but you can also increase the size for additional work surface.  

Thickness

You have to weight up stability and portability regarding thickness. I settled for 0.24 inches, which ensures durability without compromising portability. The thickness also depends on the material.    

Screws and nuts

First I tried to use special all-purpose glue to attach the bottle tops to the board, but the glue wasn’t able to withstand high pressure. Therefore, I used screws and nuts, which worked just fine.    

Instructions

The production process is simple and consists of two steps.  

Step one: cutting of the wooden board

You need a solid saw to cut the wooden board, assuming you are doing it yourself. I prefer low tech solutions and therefore I recommend buying a Stanley hand saw for this task. Don’t forget to sandpaper the edges afterward.

Step two: attachment of the bottle tops

Finally, tighten a screw for all four bottle tops in the corners of the wooden board. Congratulations, you have built your own portable standing desk!

Conclusion

The JP One is strong, light and small, which makes it the perfect solution for traveling. But you can also use it in any run-of-the-mill-office. The low price point makes owning a standing desk accessible for everyone and it’s the perfect entry-level model for all office workers.

Spread the word and send this manual to your fellow cubicle monkeys. Now you know everything you need to know about building a portable standing desk. The rest is up to you,

 

 

 

Recommended tools

All-purpose glue
Sandpaper
Screws and nuts
Stanley hand saw

How to be productive

Productivity is a popular topic among entrepreneurs and I hope I am not beating a dead horse here. Since I am self-employed, I always ask myself how I can increase my productivity. I can’t expand my working time indefinitely, so I have to use my existing working time more efficient.

Productivity

“Productivity describes various measures of the efficiency of production. A productivity measure is expressed as the ratio of output to inputs used in a production process, i.e. output per unit of input.” For example, the number of hours per blog article. I need 10 hours on average for a long-form blog article (minimum 1200 words). I have a four-step process for writing a blog article:
1. Research and draft an index (1 hour)
2. Write the article (7 hours)
3. Edit the article with Grammarly (1 hour)
4. Add pictures and formatting (1 hour)

I get consistent results with this process and I can quantify my productivity. If I need ten hours or less I have achieved my productivity goal.
The definition of productivity already holds the answer why productivity is more important for entrepreneurs than employees. An employee gets paid for his input, while the entrepreneur solely gets paid for his output.


Productivity as an employee

A few jobs like sales, where the output is easily quantifiable, are partly or entirely paid on the basis of output and therefore not part of this argument. These jobs are the exception and they have an entrepreneurial element to them. The majority of jobs, however, is paid solely for input a.k.a. “working time”, which means time spent in the office. The working time is a rough proxy for productivity. This system is favored by the fact that it’s hard to define, let alone measure the output of most office jobs today.

As an employee, you are incentivized to regress to the mean. When you produce a high output, you are expected to live up to this standard in the future and you get new projects to work on. You also set a higher benchmark for fellow employees resulting in increased peer pressure. On the other hand, if you produce a low output, you increase the workload for your colleagues and you risk getting fired.

The Nash equilibrium is the sweet spot in the middle, where you work just enough to keep the chance of getting promoted in the future without stressing yourself too much. This is especially true for environments (most large corporations) where internal politics are more important than pure output.

Productivity as an entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs are on the other end of the spectrum. They don’t get paid for their working time, but their output. Nobody cares if I wrote this article in 10 hours or 100 hours, you only care about the article. This is why productivity is so important for entrepreneurs. If you are unproductive as an entrepreneur you are doomed to fail. As an entrepreneur, you are essentially betting on your productivity.


Working time

Personally, I know I can work for five hours on peak performance per day. During this hours I work on high-level shit like writing and strategic planning, which requires a lot of mental energy. I am a morning worker, so I reserve the time block between 8 am and 1 pm for this line of work. I protect this time block religiously and it’s a good feeling to eat lunch with the satisfaction of a finished work day. In the afternoon I work another hour on low-level shit like social media marketing and emails.

If you do the maths, you could think I work 30 hours instead of the conventional 40 hours per week. This calculation doesn’t account for my work over the weekend. I don’t take days off, which adds another 12 hours to my working time and therefore I work slightly more than the average Joe. I don’t want to waste my peak performance hours and it helps to build momentum. Not working on the weekends feels arbitrary to me and I prefer to work in the morning and chill in the afternoon.


Workplace

One of the first things I do, when I move to a new city is finding a good workplace. I like to work in coworking spaces or libraries during my peak performance hours. The Working atmosphere there motivates me. In the afternoon I also work in cafés and on rare occasions from home. I don’t like to work from home because the social element is missing and I prefer a mental separation between work and free time.

Habits

People like to talk a lot about “productivity hacks” and I think the whole discussion is a bit misguided. You can take advantage of little tricks, but the best one I know is working hard consistently. It’s maybe a bit boring, but true nonetheless. If you use your peak performance hours and work in a good environment, you are halfway there.

The challenge most employees face is that that they have little influence on both crucial factors. They have to work during office hours and even if their peak performance hours fall into the office hours, they are still exposed to a constant stream of interruptions in the form of emails, calls, meetings, questions and “important” assignments. They also have little influence on their working environment, despite putting wack souvenirs on their desk.

This is a massive advantage for entrepreneurs because they can optimize their work for both factors. The only requirement is a sufficient level of self-motivation to show up every day. Therefore, the first habit every entrepreneur should cultivate is to work during your peak performance hours and protect this time block at all costs. In a way, I treat my work like a job, with the minor difference that I can choose my projects, working time and workplace and that I can keep the upside for myself.

Prioritization

Consistent working hours are just the first part of the equation. The second part is prioritization. It’s crucial that you work on important tasks, which contribute to your bottom line and move your business forward. They are generally linked to the core areas of your business. You want to work on your business and not in your business. This is why I work on high-level shit in the morning and low-level shit in the afternoon. I recommend using an old-school to-do list for prioritization. There are tons of options out there, but I like Wunderlist the most. Microsoft acquired Wunderlist in 2015 and I hope it’s not getting discontinued soon. To-do lists hold you accountable and force you to prioritize. I usually have one or two important items per day, which determine if my workday was productive or not.

Books

I can recommend some classics if you want to go down the rabbit hole of productivity. Productive work a.k.a. getting shit done is an essential skill for every entrepreneur and a 5 % increase in productivity translates to thousands of Dollars in extra yearly income. I have a book about habits and productivity mapped out in my head, but I haven’t found the muse to write it down yet. As long I haven’t disrupted the book market with my productivity book, you have to settle for one of the following books:
1. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
2. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
3. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
4. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Conclusion

You don’t need “smart drugs” or similar bullshit. Just find a good workplace and go there consistently during your peak performance time and work your ass off. Be smart and prioritize your tasks. If you follow this two simple rules, you are already in the top decile of entrepreneurs. Now you know everything you need to know about productivity.
The rest is up to you,

 

 

Recommended books

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business